NASA’s Nazis: the Men Behind “The First Man”

Photo Source Black Zero | CC BY 2.0

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department!” says Wernher von Braun

– Tom Lehrer

On Sunday, July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.  His brief sojourn climaxed a euphoric week for the US space program and answered John Kennedy’s challenge that within the decade of the Sixties NASA should put a man on the moon and safely return him to earth.  A film celebrating this accomplishment titled The First Man is soon scheduled to open, but on screen as in life a singular aspect of the U.S. space program goes largely unmentioned: Nazi scientists were almost wholly responsible for the success of that first lunar landing.

Fifteen years after Apollo Eleven’s epic flight a UPI story by Judi Hasson dated October 17, 1984 and titled Rocket Scientist Renounces U.S. Citizenship reported the following:

A German scientist who worked on America’s man-on-the-moon program renounced his U.S. citizenship and left the country amid charges he used slave labor to build Nazi V-2 rockets, officials said Wednesday.

Arthur L. H. Rudolph of San Jose, Calif., a key figure in the Saturn 5 program, left the United States in March after negotiated a deal a year ago with the Justice Department.

The Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which tracks down Nazis living in the United States and seeks their deportation, had charged Rudolph participated in the persecution of slave laborers used in the production of the V-2 missile in Germany during World War II.

The government said Rudolph was the chief operations director for Nazi Germany’s V-2 missile production at an underground rocket factory from 1943 to 1945. Hitler used the rockets to bombard London.

The government alleged Rudolph participated in the persecution of forced laborers, including inmates from the Dora-Nordhausen concentration camp, who worked under inhumane conditions.

In 1969 Norman Mailer, whose previous two non-fiction books The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago had been bestsellers, was commissioned to pen a tome about the flight of Apollo Eleven.  His resulting firsthand account, Of a Fire on the Moon, finds Mailer swept up in a moment of national ecstasy fueled by boundless optimism for the American Way and absolute faith in the efficacy of technology.  In his book the author eschewed his own given name and instead operated under the pseudonym “Aquarius”.  Much of Aquarius’s effort was devoted to the nuts and bolts of the moonshot, and his attempts at smoking out the Nazis of NASA routinely fell flat. This is likely the result of his decision to remain a passive spectator rather than an interested participant, a neutral observer equally attentive to the major actors and to the press covering them:

Aquarius had been with a small pack who had gone to talk to Dr. Debus, director of all launching operations at Kennedy and a former colleague of Von Braun’s. “Just give him the Nazi salute and he’ll holler ‘Heil Hitler!’” they all promised each other, but Debus to their consternation proved out a pleasant Junker gentleman with dueling scars on his mouth and bags under his eyes—the sort of aristocratic face and gracious if saturnine manner which belongs to an unhappy German prince from a small principality.

In Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America, Annie Jacobsen wrote:

One report pertained to rocket engineer Kurt Debus.  Debus was an ardent Nazi.  He had been an active SS member who, according to the testimony of colleagues, wore his Nazi uniform to work.  Most troublesome was the revelation in his OMGUS (Office of Military Government, US) security report that during the war he had turned a colleague, an engineering supervisor named Richard Craemer, over to the Gestapo for making anti-Nazi remarks and for refusing to give Debus the Nazi salute.

According to Jacobsen, the above-mentioned Richard Craemer would suffer two years hard labor as a result of Debus ratting him out.

Jacobsen based much of her research on the efforts of Allied intelligence to investigate the motives and character of German scientists seeking asylum in the West.  She wrote:

An OMGUS report put von Braun on equally shaky footing [as Debus], and army intelligence cautioned that, given his international profile, pushing the State Department for a visa for von Braun could cause problems.  The report revealed that not only had von Braun been an SS officer with the high rank of SS-Sturmbannfuhrer, or SS-Major, but his membership had been sponsored by Heinrich Himmler.

In Of a Fire on the Moon Mailer (Aquarius) wrote:

Von Braun had been on a panel with Dr. Mueller, Dr. Debus, Dr.  Gilruth, and a director from Langley, but half the questions had gone to von Braun.  He seemed sensitive to the fact that the Press made jokes about his past.  There was one tale every reporter had heard—“Tell me, Dr. von Braun,” a correspondent said, “what is there to keep Saturn V from landing on London?”  But the story was doubtless apocryphal; it smacked of reporters’ bile.

On November 25, 1944 a V2 rocket hit a crowded Woolworths in New Cross, south London, killing 168 people. The store had been unusually busy that day because saucepans, a scarce wartime commodity, were on sale.  There was no warning—the rocket had arrived at supersonic speed so that the detonation of its warhead was the first and only indication of its existence.

The V2 was entirely von Braun’s creation.  The mighty Saturn V moon rocket was a great grandchild of this original terror weapon, for the two had sprouted from the same technological root.  Each possessed a crucial component that made large powerful liquid-fueled rockets feasible: von Braun’s bell.  A bell is a big nozzle at the base of a rocket where fuel and liquid oxygen mix to produce a controlled explosion.  Von Braun’s bell had liquid oxygen circulate through its walls before mixing with fuel, thus chilling the big nozzle (liquid oxygen is hugely cold) and preventing it from burning up during combustion—theretofore a chronic problem. Von Braun’s simple bell design became the standard for all subsequent liquid-fueled rockets.

The V2 was originally produced at Peenemünde on the Baltic Coast, but after the missile site was discovered by Allied bombers its facilities were relocated to an underground location called Mittelwerk. At Mittelwerk things got ugly.

In The Rocket Team, Frederick I. Ordway III and Mitchell R. Sharpe described this new circumstance:

Missile assembly at Mittelwerk was accomplished in a facility possessing approximately 1,200,000 square feet of usable floor area, consisting principally of two long main tunnels (Fahrstollen) some 35 feet wide, 25 feet high, and about 500 feet apart.

The two authors also reported that:

One ground intelligence report noted that during April 1944, “Sixty flat cars left the plant; three cars had two rockets each in them.  The rockets are manufactured by 2,000 civilians and 10,000 prisoners who live in nearby barracks.  About 500 to 1,000 prisoners come in each week, they died fast or were killed by mistreatment.”

In Operation Paperclip Annie Jacobsen reported that following the war Major Eugene Smith of the U.S. Army was instructed to investigate the abuse of workers at Mittelwerk, where the workforce was mostly slave labor drawn from a nearby concentration camp called Dora-Nordhausen. The abuses reported included public hangings.  Among those interviewed was the above-mentioned Arthur Rudolph:

. . . Major Smith interviewed the former Mittelwerk operations director, Arthur Rudolph.  Like Georg Rickhey, Arthur Rudolph had authority over the Mittelwerk’s Prison Labor Supply office, which was the unit responsible for getting food rations to the slave laborers.  In his interview, Arthur Rudolph first denied ever seeing prisoners abused.  Major Smith showed Arthur Rudolph the illustration that had been drawn by Rudolph’s Nordhausen colleagues Haukohl, Schlidt, Palaoro, and Ball.  Major Smith pointed out to Arthur Rudolph that Rudolph’s office was directly adjacent to where the twelve so-called political prisoners had been hanged from the crane.  As Arthur Rudolph continued to deny ever seeing prisoners abused, Smith found his testimony increasingly suspicious.

Jacobsen further noted that on August 7, 1947 nineteen Nazis were tried for the deaths of some 20,000 laborers at Mittelwerk.  She wrote:

The prosecution requested that Werhner von Braun be allowed to testify at the trial, but the army said it was too much of a security risk to allow von Braun to travel to Germany. (Von Braun had been on U.S. soil since September 7, 1945.)

She further reported:

At the end of the trial, fifteen of nineteen defendants were found guilty.  . . .  “Then, in an unprecedented move, the Army classified the entire trial record,” explains journalist Linda Hunt.  The record would remain secret from the public for another forty years.

Von Braun’s Nazi past had always been an open secret. Stanley Kubrick modeled Dr. Strangelove after him and Tom Lehrer lampooned him hilariously on That Was The Week That Was while Walt Disney tried to make him a national hero. And the U.S. military needed him, needed him so desperately that a Faustian bargain was struck.  Since adolescence von Braun had dreamed of sending a spaceship to another world.  Warm ruddy Mars had long beckoned, but he settled for the cold lifeless moon.  In return he provided the U.S. military with missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads deep inside the Soviet Union. For a man who made his bones bombing civilians in London, work on ever more destructive weapons of mass murder stirred few moral qualms.

In Of a Fire on the Moon Mailer (Aquarius) attempted a sort of summing up:

Nazism had been an assault upon the cosmos—why think of it as less?  That is why it moved as the specter behind every civilized transaction. For it had said: civilization will stifle man unless man is delivered onto a new plane.  Was space its amputated limb, its philosophy in orbit?

Of NASA’s Nazis only Arthur Rudolph would be held in any way accountable for his crimes.  But the German statute of limitations covering Rudolph’s offenses had long since expired, so his only real punishment was loss of his U.S. citizenship.  Kurt Debus passed in 1983.  Since 1990 the National Space Club of Florida has presented a Kurt Debus Award in recognition of significant Florida contributions to aerospace technology.  In 1975 Wernher von Braun was awarded the National Medal of Science.  He passed in 1977.

Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at